Love. What is it, precisely? I ask because, despite being the language of Shakespeare, English offers only one rather generalised word for ‘love’, yet this wonderful emotion has many variations.
The term love is bandied about far too freely these days. For example, you might say, “I love you” to the man or woman of your dreams and five minutes later say “I’d love a cup of tea”, as though your feelings for a humble beverage were really on a par with those for the love of your life.
Greeks have no such problem. When it comes to vocabulary they’re second to none, rarely having just one word to describe something when a couple of hundred will do! Whereas the English, when not actually grunting, tend to stick to our familiar catch-all, four-lettered word, our Hellenic cousins have a wealth of descriptions for different types of love. Well, it stands to reason – if love is a ‘many splendoured thing’* then surely it deserves at least as many splendoured ways to express it.
Eros (E’ros) is the Greek term for romantic love, the hearts and flowers, Mills & Boon type of love to which most people aspire at some point in their lives. This kind of emotion has little to do with common sense and almost everything to do with chemistry and physical attraction. Sadly, by mistaking lust for genuine love, couples may commit themselves when they have little else in common, only for the relationship to end in rejection and tears.
Philia (phi-li’a) is the affection we have for our friends, a close bond created through mutual trust and shared experience. True friendship can never be gained through bribes or flattery; rather, the people we choose to associate with should be honest with us, willing to listen and ready to help in a crisis.
Storge (stor-ge’) describes the natural warmth and personal attachment between family members - parents for children, children for brothers and sisters and, of course, Mums and Dads for each other. To appreciate just how vital this quality is, we need only consider the results when it’s lacking – domestic violence, divorce, unwanted pregnancies, estrangement, lack of interest in elderly parents and homelessness.
Agape (a-ga’pe) the highest form of love. Guided by principle, this emotion transcends all others, as it can be displayed towards people we don’t know and even towards our enemies. Professor William Barclay wrote in his New Testament Words “Agape has to do with the mind: it is not simply an emotion which rises unbidden in our hearts; it is a principle by which we deliberately live. Agape has supremely to do with the will.” It’s this kind of love which prevents us from kicking our worst enemy when they’re lying in the gutter – on the contrary, impelling us to help them to their feet; the compassion displayed by the Good Samaritan for a man he knew despised him; the unconquerable love which, if manifest in everyone of us, would literally change the world!
* 1955 song by Sammy Fain & Paul Francis Webster, publicised by film of same name